Writing a biography is not psychoanalysis

From a talk given by the biographer Brenda Maddox at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, in London, as part of the 'On the Way Home' series

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Biography does have some things in common with psychoanalysis. I believe that the child is father to the man, that the early life counts. In my books I give the relationship to the mother a lot of attention. I also believe personal letters reveal more than the writer intended. I always keep an eye out for what the words are saying beyond the manifest meaning.

Biography does have some things in common with psychoanalysis. I believe that the child is father to the man, that the early life counts. In my books I give the relationship to the mother a lot of attention. I also believe personal letters reveal more than the writer intended. I always keep an eye out for what the words are saying beyond the manifest meaning.

That said, "psycho-babble" is not a word you hope to see in your reviews. Yet, if you are conscious of the unconscious and the importance of childhood, you constantly invite this sneer. I try to avoid it by not using explicit theory or psychological jargon. I knew I was taking a risk in my biography of WB Yeats when, after a discussion of his marriage at the late age of 52 to a woman of 25 and subsequent communication with supposed ghosts, I flashed back to his late mother and her combination of indifference to her eldest son and her story-telling gift. I thought it important to show why a successful poet of mature years suddenly acquired a dependence on voices from beyond.

Something else that biographers and analysts perhaps have in common is a distanced relationship with the personality before them. People are always asking biographers, "But do you like him or her?", as if you had to be half in love with the subject in order to do your job. For me, liking has nothing to do with it, and this must be the same for analysts as well. I've chosen my subjects because there was something new to say - perhaps because of new material or a new approach opening up. However, maybe like doctors, you don't have to like your subjects at the start, but by the end you can't help but like them, having seen them through so much.

Like analysts, biographers have to construct a narrative out of chaotic experience. You have to decide where the climactic points are while allowing for the silences and gaps in life, the times of depression or illness, or there is simply nothing much happening. I do try to hold myself back from identifying too much with my subject and substituting my reactions for theirs. At the same time I do draw, as perhaps analysts do, on my own experience and try to benefit from some personal chords that the material releases. My research into Nora Joyce took me back to memories of my Massachusetts childhood, watching a neighbour, an Irish woman married to an Italian, weeping every St Patrick's Day - as Nora did - thinking of the parties back home she was missing.

A biographer, however, has the great advantage of all kinds of objective evidence in addition to what the subject offers about him or herself. Also - a big advantage for me, who has a grasshopper mind - you can be erratic in your working routine while analysts are locked into their rigid appointment schedules. I sit at my desk every day, but I shift from chapter to chapter, work on the whole book at once, and welcome interruptions. I wouldn't advise this method to anybody else, it's just the way I do it.

The glaring difference, to me, between analysis and biography is that I'm not trying to heal anybody. I'm trying to produce a finished, readable, non-libellous book for the publisher who's contracted it. Biography is not a profession. There are no entry requirements. If you can get somebody to print your words, you're a writer, or a journalist. In a profession like analysis you have to be admitted by a board, which can also kick you out.

My restraints are the law of copyright and libel, and the contract with my publishers. True, a book deadline is nowhere as strict as a deadline in journalism. Even so, you have to finish by an certain agreed time, and you do know when you have reached the end. That's certainly not true of what I know about psychoanalysis.

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